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Theory and Practice of External Linking

uncle sam pointing as external link in legal blogAs professional legal bloggers, we here at Myers Freelance read a lot of legal blogs. Obviously, some are better than others. However, one thing that we see again and again and again – especially on legal blogs that focus on scoring search engine optimization (SEO) points over educating readers – is a complete lack of outbound links pointing to other sites.

The choice to not link outside of your own law firm’s domain is understandable – it’s intuitive to think that including external links in your legal blog sends readers to other parts of the internet and generally hurts your own site. However, professional marketers know that this is not the case. In fact, the general thought is that external links to the right sites can even improve your site’s ranking online, and that this thought is backed up by both theory and practice.

Refresher: Internal Links v. External Links

The difference between an internal and an external link is simple: An internal link (such as this one) does not leave your domain, while an external link (like this one) goes somewhere else on the internet. In a legal blog, both have value when you completely disregard SEO – they’re both useful to link to if you want to refer to something you’re talking about in your blog post, but don’t have the time to fully explain in your own article.

When you do consider SEO, though, an external link can become more complicated if you don’t understand the theory behind using them to rank a website and the studies that support those theories.

The Idea of Using External Links to Judge a Site’s Value

Recall that SEO is all about appeasing search engines, and that search engines are in the business of satisfying their customers. They do this by getting the most relevant and important sites for a particular search query to the top of the rankings.

In theory, one way that search engines could do this would be by looking to where a certain website sends external links. The same thought applies to a legal brief: You can quickly tell if a legal brief is going to be a good one if it cites to the relevant and important cases – a bad one will either cite to non-binding precedent, to irrelevant caselaw, or will fail to site to anything, at all. While using external links to judge a website’s quality is just a theory, the search engine industry is a multi-billion dollar one, so you can count on them using it, if it actually works.

Studies Link Authoritative External Links to Good Rankings

Legal marketing practice seems to confirm the idea that search engines keep track of external links. In fact, one study suggested that websites that included external links to authoritative online sources outperformed similar websites that had no external links, at all.

Of course, these results raise the question of what it means to link to an “authoritative” website. In the context of legal blogging, though, there is rarely a need to go in depth on this issue: If you’re talking about the Second Amendment, for instance, linking to the Legal Information Institute is going to be better than linking to the site of a conspiracy theorist who thinks that it’s the only thing preventing the imminent government takeover of all the U.S.-based sources of Szechuan sauce.